AKG Acoustics N90Q headphones

AKG Acoustics N90Q

The full package comes in an elegant soft-edged hard metal travel case, complete with gold-on-black statement from Quincy Jones in the main packaging. Inside are the headphones (of course), a significant array of cables to connect the N90Q to different parts of the outside world, a bag, and even a matching power bar to charge the N90Q should the need arise. The first samples of the headphone were finished in black and gold, but a second finish is now available that replaces much of the gold finish with black. These are large headphones, however, and I kind of prefer the gold and black contrasts.

When first you use the N90Q (after a thorough charging of course), you are recommended to run through the TrueNote auto-calibration system, by pressing and holding a button at the back and side of the right ear cup. If you are playing music, it mutes for a few seconds, you get a quick chirp through both ears in quick succession, and then playback is resumed. What this TrueNote system does is fire a calibrating tone at your ear, then receive the feedback through microphones in the ear cup, and actively control the acoustics in the space inside the headphone for the shape of your ears. If you think this doesn’t make a profound difference, try this for size: find someone with a very different ear shape to yours (for example, if you have small ears close to your head, find someone who looks like Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter movies) have them run the software on the N90Q to suit their ears. Now hear your best-known music, re-run the TrueNote calibration again, and be impressed! The changes might not be as significant as applying the right degree of acoustic treatment to a room (because bass management and flutter echo control aren’t an issue in the gap between headphone and ears), but the control over internal reflections from the outer ear does make more of a difference than you might expect.

TrueNote also has benefit because it creates noise cancellation more tailored to the listener. The N90Q may be a fairly large proposition for drowning out the daily commute (the smaller, folding N60NC models from the same brand are the audiophile’s choice for commuters wishing to wave away the outside world), but as a noise cancellation system for a long-haul flight, they are little short of remarkable. The closed back headphone in its own right is good enough at attenuating the general background noise of an environment, but the noise cancellation system makes it considerably more potent. As the N90Q are surprisingly comfortable on the head (at 460g, they don’t feel heavy and the lambskin ear pads don’t get sweaty even after several hours of listening) they significantly help you overcome the rigours of hours in the air. Admittedly, I have a soldier’s ability to sleep through almost any flight at a moments notice, but during one flight I took wearing a pair of AKGs, I thought we were in a glider… that’s how quiet the noise floor is with these designs. However, the clever part of the noise cancellation system here isn’t just the sledgehammer use keeping a Boeing at bay; it’s the scalpel-like precision that cuts away a lot of the surprisingly high background listening levels of many listeners. Unless you live a cloistered life miles from anyone with no power lines, no devices humming away in the background, and the rest of modern life’s creaks, whirrs, buzzes, and groans, it’s surprising how much of that intrudes, at least until you find a way of quieting it.

Staying on the left side of your head, short presses of the TrueNote button put the N90Q into one of three DSP settings; ‘Standard’, which turns off all the digital processing, ‘2.1 Studio’ which is meant to replicate the sound heard by someone like ‘Q’ at the faders, and ‘5.1 Surround’, which gives a fuller, broader soundstage (albeit not without penalty). These are audibly indicated with different takes on a ‘tok, tok’ sound. There is a similar auditory signalling for the tone control, built into left ear panel; this is a slope setting, and moving the dial toward you means more bass and less treble, and doing the opposite, does the opposite.

The left hand ear-cup also houses both a micro USB input and a 2.5mm jack socket, the latter of which comes with two cables; with and without in-line microphone. A more interesting option is the micro USB input, as it acts as battery charger, a path for software updates should they arise, and – here’s the kicker – feed from a computer to the N90Q’s built-in DAC. AKG decided to cap the resolution of this DAC at 24-bit, 96kHz, but there’s something remarkably ‘right’ about having the digital to analogue circuitry in so short a signal path that it is physically housed inside the body of the headphone. It effectively makes the AKG N90Q a one-stop high-end headphone stop for someone wanting great sound, but unwilling to use separate DACs and headphone amplifiers. In a way, this makes the N90Q the ultimate transportable rig. Well, almost; because the N90Q sees a USB connected device as a potential source of both music and power, and it draws too much of the latter to allow an iPhone to be connected, even if an iPad and Android phone will work. The in-line microphone on one of the 3.5mm cables is MFI certified, however.

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